Scientists believe the hurricanes that plagued the Gulf region in August and September 2005 created floodwaters containing high levels of fecal-indicator bacteria and microbial pathogens, subjecting residents to an array of health risks.

“The findings emphasize the importance of including environmental monitoring in disaster management plans,” says Helena Solo-Gabriele, environmental engineer at the University of Miami and co-author of a study funded by the National Science Foundation. “A rapid assessment of conditions can protect emergency workers and residents from potential illnesses resulting from exposure.”

The report concludes that residents were exposed to the floodwaters, and to the sediments remaining after the water subsided, for an extended period. The most affected area was immediately around the New Orleans Superdome, where thousands of hurricane-displaced residents were housed after the storms.